What’s it mean? The truth about food labels

Aug 10, 2015 by Carol Bareuther

Is that popcorn you’re eating labelled “lite” because it has fewer calories or because it’s lighter in color or texture than its counterparts on the shelf?

Actually, according to current U.S. labelling regulations, the answer could be either. This means that to really know what you’re eating, it pays to read the fine print as well as learn which label lingo is truly meaningful or meaningless.

Tricky Terms

Light or lite. These words can appear on products ranging from cookies and crackers to salad dressings, canned meats and snack chips. To carry this label, a food must have either 33 percent fewer calories or 50 percent less fat or sodium than its conventional counterpart.

Photo by Dean Barnes

Photo by Dean Barnes

This is, however, if there are no other words trailing these terms. For example, “light or lite in color” or “light or lite in texture” relates only to the hue and feel of the food and not its calorie, fat or sodium content.

Natural. In the U.S., meat, poultry and eggs that are labelled natural must be minimally processed with no artificial ingredients. There is no U.S. Food & Drug Association (FDA) definition for natural as it relates to any other foods, so this isn’t a description you can always count on to mean what you hope it does.

However, other countries do regulate this term a little more closely. The UK’s Food Standards Agency has published criteria for natural and it includes foods that have “ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man.” The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s definition does not consider foods with added vitamins and minerals to be natural.

Genetically engineered. The U.S. has no laws requiring genetically-engineered foods to be so labelled. The tricky part is that many other countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, Russia and the UK do label foods if they are genetically engineered or have genetically modified ingredients. So, if this fact is important to you, look for foods that companies have voluntarily labelled no-GMO.

Terms with True Meaning

Organic. If you see the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic seal on a product, trust that the food is certified organic. Even if it’s a product with multiple ingredients such as soup, everything has to be grown with specific methods that promote ecology, biodiversity and conservation of resources to get this seal. This means no synthetic fertilizers, irradiation or genetic engineering is used.

Organic is also a strictly regulated definition in countries such as Canada, the UK, France, Germany, India, Japan and Australia.

Gluten-Free. The FDA nailed this definition down in 2013. Accordingly, if you buy a gluten-free product, it won’t have any wheat, rye, barley or crossbreeds of these grains or any ingredient from these grains that hasn’t been processed to remove the gluten down to a level less than 20 or more parts or million (small enough to not create an adverse reaction in most gluten-intolerant people).

Beware that some gluten-free foods may contain more fat, sugar and calories than their conventional counterparts because these ingredients are needed to make a gluten-free product with acceptable taste and texture. The European Union and UK, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and many South American and Asian countries have bona-fide labelling systems to identify gluten-free foods.

Undefined Term

Local. There is no universal definition of local in the U.S., but the U.S. Congress did get close in 2008 with a meaning that states “less than 400 miles from the origin of the product”.

In 2012, UK author Damian Radcliffe defined hyperlocal in the context of media as “online news or content service pertaining to a small community such as a town, village or single postcode.” The same geography could describe hyperlocal in terms of where foods grown are consumed, but beyond this local and hyperlocal are anyone’s definition.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.